At first they came for my radio and I said nothing because the local station is terrible. Then they came for the manuscripts and I ignored them because I have a copy on my kindle.
Many of the residents who left — first to escape the occupation, then to escape the French airstrikes — have no way to return. Always remote, the city remains dangerously isolated: the dusty tracks and rivers leading here wind through forbidding scrubland territory that could still provide refuge for the Islamist fighters who melted away from the cities.
Those who remained told stories of how they survived the long occupation: by hiding away treasured manuscripts and amulets forbidden by the Islamists, burying crates of beer in the desert, standing by as the tombs of saints they venerated were reduced to rubble, silencing their radios to the city’s famous but now forbidden music.
“They tried to take away everything that made Timbuktu Timbuktu,” said Mahalmoudou Tandina, a marabout, or Islamic preacher, whose ancestors first settled in Timbuktu from Morocco in the 13th century. “They almost succeeded.”
I had a chance to visit Mali when I lived in Senegal and stupidly did not take advantage of the opportunity. What is happening right now in the Maghreb has been a long time in the making (there were really troubling signs even when I was over there in 2007). This current crisis was largely provoked by the collapse of the Gaddaffi regime in 2011, but don’t take that fact necessarily as evidence that any sort of foreign intervention is inexorably bad. As always things are more complicated then most Americans would like them to be:
The wild card here, and this is real typical of contemporary war, is the civilian population of Gao itself. See, they aren’t Tuareg or Arab, most of them. They’re “black” Africans, French speakers from the south who’ve moved into the new towns that are popping up all over Africa. The big question was which side they’d back—and it turned out that they chose to side with the MUJWA. Not that they’re necessarily Wahhabists, but because the Wahhabists are against any Tuareg nationalism, and the people of Gao were scared about being stuck in a new Tuareg homeland that wouldn’t offer them, as urban, commercial folks, any future. They were for keeping Mali intact, and on that issue, at least, the Jihadists were with them.
So once the MNLA had run, the townspeople of Gao were celebrating, shouting “Vive Mali!” and such. The trouble is, they’re likely to find out that they don’t agree with their temporary friends on much else. The day after the Battle of Gao, the MUJWA/Ansar ad Dine pickup trucks zoomed into most of the other towns of the river region and started smashing up those ancient Sufi shrines. So they’re already pissing off the locals in their inimitable fashion.
The Wahhabists realized, just like the Tuareg had a few months earlier, that fighting the Mali Army was mostly a matter of fighting driver fatigue; the only limiting factor was how much gas you had in your Toyota Hilux. They’re already in Diabaly, only about 250 miles from Bamako and well into the Southern/”black”/French-speaking zone.
And that’s what made the French decide that it was time to intervene on behalf of their hopeless clients in Bamako, not to mention all those French companies that have spent the last 50 years worming their way into sweet bribery-heavy deals with the sleazes who run their former colonies.
This situation is not going to be neatly resolved anytime soon, and will sadly probably necessitate a large and expensive international peacekeeping force to return some sense of normalcy to the area once things get calmer. The best the world can hope for is that the situation does not devolve into the orgy of violence that occurred in the 1990’s just to the south in Liberia/Sierra Leone, or the even worse (and ongoing) nightmare that is the Congo. In the meantime however, it is probably best to completely ignore ignorant idiots on both ends of the Neocon and Isolationist scale, particularly the intellectually lazy (and politically motivated) comparisons to our own misadventures in the Middle East and Afghanistan:
The reason I feel pretty damn sure that 90% of Mali is pro-French intervention is that Mali, like the rest of the world, doesn’t consist of bullshit Constitutional voters but blocs of people; in this case, two big blocs, the 10% Tuareg/Arab population of the Northern triangle, and the 90% black/African/French-speaking people around and south of the Niger River. People don’t make individual decisions on wars; that’s part of Glen Greenwald’s typically American crap perspective on the world. We live in groups and we decide in groups; how else do you explain how cleanly the US split up, in a few months, in 1861?
And it’s not that hard to guess what the 90% (Malian slogan idea: “We are the 90%! Heeeeelp!”) in the South feels about hosting an intervention by the hardcore survivors of thirty nightmare years of massacres in the Maghrib and Sahara. How would you feel? Africans are just fuckin’ people, which nobody seems to get. How would you feel if the mangled, bitter remnants of the Algerian jihadis—groups that carried banners saying “Angry at God” and wiped out whole villages so often that a big chunk of the movement, the Salafist moderates, split off because they were sick of killing kids—was bouncing south?
The black/African/French-speaking South is like Britain post-Roman occupation: nice people, like to have fun, but no longer warlike. They farmed that out to the French, which means (A) it’s not as big a step for them to ask for French intervention as it might seem; it’s more like calling an exterminator you have on contract; and (B) they’re as helpless against the Maghribi jihadists as the Britons were against those blood-simple Saxons and Angles. Not to mention Jutes.
So yeah, I think Occam’s Razor cuts my way on Malian public opinion: 10% in favor of Jihadist intervention and opposed to French intervention, and 90% against the Black Flag Brigade and in favor of the tricolor—which, by the way, has been selling out in Bamako, the Malian capital—can’t keep it on the shelves.
Kind of puts the now 10 year old “cheese eating surrender monkeys” joke in an even worse context.